The Siren Song of Mad Science

The fourth essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “The Siren Song of Mad Science” by Kirby Arinder and Joseph Milton. This essay is a very stylistic description of a villain advocating for mad science and trying to describe and determine what one has to do or what one has to believe in order to be a mad scientist. Unfortunately, the style gets in the way of it making an actual point, as it is difficult to glean from it what point they are attempting to make. Presumably, it’s something about science and the scientific method, though, but what precise point seems to be quite obscured by the style.

That being said, I think it is mainly about the idea that science is perceived as being a valueless assessment of the data, and letting the data lead you to the right conclusion, because it and it alone will, in fact, always do so. As the authors describe this as being the main mistake that mad scientists do that makes them, in fact, mad scientists, it seems reasonable that they think this not only a bad way to go, but also that it is based on a gravely mistaken idea of science. As they point out, the data does not lead incontrovertibly to any particular conclusion. Even assessments like preferring one theory to another because it is simpler or because it is more useful to use — a common assessment people like Jerry Coyne use for mathematics and philosophy — is in fact a value judgement. They argue, I think, that if you try to pretend that there are no value judgements in science and that the data leads to the one incontrovertible solution, you’ll end up choosing based on hidden values whenever you have to decide which theory to accept in those cases where the data doesn’t, in fact, settle the question, and those values will almost always be with theory that you prefer to be correct.

It would be too much to conclude — and I think they understand this — that the data itself is totally neutral when it comes to which theories are to be preferred and which aren’t. The data will certainly prune away certain theories that simply don’t make sense given the data or evidence we have. Certainly, we can adapt theories to conform to the evidence and keep on going, but at least certain theories — ie the unadapted ones — will have to be tossed and at some point you end up having to change the theory so much that it isn’t recognizable as the same theory any more; you’re using the same name but the theory is nothing like the original theory. However, it is also clear that a lot of the settled debates in science are not, in fact, that settled, or were not that settled by the evidence, and also that most of those who insist that the evidence settles everything also smuggle in these hidden value judgements, or as I like to call them these hidden philosophical commitments. Appeals to parsimony and Occam’s Razor are, if you understand what they mean, explicit recognitions that the data and evidence isn’t settling the question, as they only apply when two or more theories, in fact, explain equally well the same data. Appeals to prediction and testability are useful only because given these things it is easier for us to demonstrate that the theory is incorrect, but that hardly means that it is more likely to be right. Appealing to the theory explaining things across a broader domain is a subset of the “utility” and/or “testability” angles, and doesn’t mean that it supports the evidence in the specific domain better than the other theories do. So, even when we look at fundamental components of the scientific method, we can see that a lot of them violate the skeptical ideal that we should apportion our beliefs based on the evidence, as the evidence is not, in fact, always so accommodating and yet science has found ways to buttress their beliefs despite the evidence not, itself, being able to justify that confidence that theory A is right and theory B is wrong.

This, I think, underlies a lot of the fights between skeptics and scientismists on the one hand and theists and philosophers on the other. Scientismists and skeptics both insist that they are following the evidence, and that we ought to follow the evidence. But they include as part of their assessment of the strength of the evidence these philosophical and methodological commitments. However, these commitments are merely their own commitments, and so no one else need accept them. Thus, these commitments need to be justified, and most of them simply cannot do it. We can see how this plays out whenever anyone does challenge them. When we see skeptics and scientismists dismissing, say, theism on the basis of the evidence, and then when pushed on the evidence appealing to naturalism or parsimony to justify it being the only rational position, at that point they have moved from basing their preference solely on the evidence to bringing in philosophical commitments. When you challenge the commitments — as I often do for both naturalism and parsimony — they often retreat to weak inductive arguments and an insistence that this is what it means to be rational, or even directly to the whole “Science works!” counter. But all of these are philosophical commitments, not arguments based on evidence. Even appealing to science’s success doesn’t work unless this is a scientific question and they themselves know how they’d test the proposition.

This also applies to appeals to science to settle philosophical questions, like “How can something come from nothing?” and “Do we have free will?”. Typically, the philosophers don’t dispute the scientific evidence. They simply dispute that it does support the contention as strongly as the scientismists think it does. That many scientismists reply with “You just don’t want to admit that we’ve solved your problem!” when the philosophers a) have already thought of that solution and b) can point out why it isn’t one can be easily explained by the scientists not understanding where the demarcation line is between direct scientific questions and questions of other fields, like every day reasoning, philosophy, mathematics, and so on, and so pushing philosophical commitments as if they are entailed by the data instead of being used to filter theories in light of inconclusive data.

In fact, if people like Jerry Coyne want a definition of scientism, that would be it: attempting to apply scientific commitments beyond the demarcation point between science and another field without demonstrating that those commitments apply to that field. And yes, we can have religionism and philosophism as well, and all are equally bad.


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